After months of back and forth between local Bournefield residents and the V.I. Port Authority, Sen. Celestino White Sr. hopes his committee meeting scheduled for Thursday night will clarify the situation once and for all.
The conflict with Bournefield goes back several years but was brought back up last November when VIPA board members voted to give the tenants until the end of March to move out. Board members discussed the hazardous condition of the units, described the area as a flood zone and worried about liability issues that could arise if residents continued to live on the property.
Residents have protested the eviction and have met with VIPA officials twice since the initial decision was made. While the tenants have called for the authority to help them relocate since public housing options are scare and apartments are expensive on the private market, VIPA board members voted at another meeting in February to issue eviction notices to any residents still living in the area on March 31. The notices would give residents 30 more days to vacate the premises.
The board rescinded its decision at another meeting a week later and gave the tenants two more months to move out, giving VIPA more time to figure out potential solutions, gather household and financial information from the tenants, and review the results of a structural integrity and condemnation report put together on the area.
None of the 42 families living in Bournefield have been successful in finding alternate housing, and White said Wednesday that it is the Port Authority’s responsibility as their landlord to help. White has continued to advocate on behalf of the tenants and scheduled a meeting of his Housing and Labor Committee Thursday evening to discuss the issue.
"The government or the Port Authority should not add to homelessness," White said. "And if the Port Authority needs the property, they must do what the government does and find a one-on-one housing replacement for the tenants."
White said the authority has changed its tune on the issue many times over the years, but agreed at one point not to continue to refill the units once they have been vacated.
"They said they were not in the housing business, so what they would do, as soon as a tenant leaves is that they would not reoccupy that unit, and they would knock it down until everyone had moved," White said. "That was the statement, that was the policy and everyone there was operating under the premise that the Port Authority was just going to wait them out. But the Port Authority has gone back on its word and as late as 2010, was placing people in those units."
White said he wants to clarify what VIPA’s intentions for the property are and see if officials plan to help the residents relocate. He said an alternative would be to hold off on asking the residents to move until the V.I. Housing Finance Authority or V.I. Housing Authority is able to offer them units.
While the executive directors of both housing agencies have told the residents that waiting lists for their units and programs are extensive, the Bournefield tenants have said that in some cases, they do not qualify for public housing because of the income requirements but are unable to afford a private apartment comparable to their existing homes.
White said the other solution would be to transfer Bournefield from VIPA to one of the public housing agencies.
"Let’s transfer the units to an entity in the housing business," White said. "And let’s get to the truth about why the Port Authority wants the property."
The committee hearing will begin on St. Thomas at 6 p.m.